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Posted by Tim Bryce on January 8, 2012


Throughout the corporate world we have seen examples of the Peter Principle in practice, whereby people rise above their level of competency; people who make a mockery of their job and discredit their company and themselves in the process. Perhaps they were promoted because nobody else wanted the job or perhaps they were simply selected based on seniority; maybe they politicked for the job and were rewarded not for what they had accomplished but their ability to kiss the backside of someone else in authority, aka “cronyism”. Regardless, they have risen above their ability to effectively perform the job they were assigned. In many cases, the job in question is just a pit stop in the road to the top, but more often than not, they covet the position they have acquired and either perform it with an iron fist or just let the work go to pieces (or both). This naturally raises the ire of subordinates and others more qualified to perform the work. It also becomes rather obvious to customers and vendors who have to deal with the person. Naturally, they scratch their head in bewilderment as to why this person was selected for promotion.

We also see this phenomenon in nonprofit organizations where people are seeking social stature as opposed to performing anything of merit, be it a homeowner association, a sports club, a professional trade society, a civic organization or whatever. Those who tend to covet titles in such groups normally suffer from low self-esteem as they never accomplished anything of substance in their professional lives and now crave recognition. Even in the most rudimentary 501(c) organization, they fail to grasp it is a legal entity in the eyes of the state which must conform to certain legalities. Failure to execute specific rules and regulations can easily lead to lawsuits and disaster.

To the individual, promotion is a confirmation of his abilities. If he is a poor performer, his advancement sends a dangerous message that his work meets with the approval of others. Naturally, the person will not change and continue in his faulty ways. If his progression is arrested though, he will question why. Hopefully, he will receive some coaching along the way before this happens which is one reason why I’m a big proponent of Employee Performance Evaluations (click for a free COPY). Such reviews are just as pertinent in a nonprofit organization as they are in the corporate world. Without such reviews or coaching, and the person is rejected, he is blindsided and his ego is shattered.

To assure the right people are selected for key posts, political machines are often devised thereby compromising the harmony of an organization. You either play ball with the good old boys in charge or forget about progressing through the organization. Sadly, you find this in both the corporate and nonprofit world. It’s distasteful and ultimately impedes the organization’s effectiveness. Whenever the wrong person is put into a position of authority, the systems of the organization falter, productivity slips, the moral values of the business are put into question, and harmony is disrupted. Basically, it’s a “lose-lose” situation that can be difficult to rectify.

Aside from the political aspect, I am at a loss as to why people believe they should be elevated, particularly if they have not demonstrated they possess the skills or fortitude necessary to successfully perform the work. Perhaps it is a sense of entitlement, that it’s “their turn” to be promoted. Such a mindset is invalid and should be rebuked as nobody is entitled to a position based on “turns”; it’s ludicrous. People should be selected for promotion based strictly on qualifications and availability. In situations where people are selected out of desperation, it should be made clear to them that retaining their job and any possible advancement in the future depends on their ability to successfully execute their job and prepare for the next. The lack of counseling and instruction in this regard does them a disservice. Likewise, the failure to heed the advice does the organization a disservice.

Nonprofit organizations are particularly susceptible to promoting people through the ranks without merit. Such organizations today are struggling for members and consequently beg people to take positions out of desperation. The group, therefore, shouldn’t be surprised when such people accomplish nothing. Instead of pleading with people to take a volunteer job, perhaps it is time to merge with another like-minded organization, change your approach to membership, curtail what you are trying to accomplish, or call it a day.

Part of the problem is the myth that everybody must win, that nobody loses, which is something we have been fostering in our youth over the last few decades. This is just plain fallacious. Just about every aspect of life involves instances of winners and losers with the lesson being: if you want something, you must earn it. Only then will you value it as opposed to having it dropped in your lap without lifting a finger.

So, why do we reward incompetence? Maybe it’s because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings; maybe we want to throw someone a bone as a political gesture; maybe it’s someone’s “turn”; or maybe we simply do not have anyone else to do the job right now. Regardless, the person has received it for all the wrong reasons. Hopefully, they will rise to the occasion and do a competent job. Unfortunately, most do not and damage the organization, not to mention earning the ire and resentment of others. Remember this: for every person who takes a job they have no intention of performing, somebody else must compensate and perform the duty.

Rewarding incompetence is one of the most common management snafus that has cursed companies of all sizes and shapes for years. Longevity of a problem doesn’t make it right, it just means people do not want to deal with it, hoping instead it will go away on its own which, of course, never does. The message must be made clear to all involved, promotions must be earned. In desperate situations where people are forced into positions they are not qualified, they must be coached properly, but if they fail to assume their duties and responsibilities, or even try to put forth an honest effort, it must be made vividly clear their journey upward in the corporate hierarchy will come to a screeching halt. Advancing does a disservice to the company, the people, and the individual. It is just plain bad business.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2012 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.



  1. Tim Bryce said

    An S.G. of Illinois wrote…

    “Sometimes a person is promoted as a way of getting him out of a position where he is causing harm and into a position where he can’t do so much damage. I used to wonder why the person simply wasn’t fired.

    I do know that it demoralizes others who then give up striving hard and simply do the minimum amount of effort to keep their job. It’s hellish to realize that one’s company doesn’t value competence or knowledge and the absolute proof is what they chose to promote.”

    A J.D. of Columbus, Ohio wrote…

    “I think this could also apply to hiring practices. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many times, someone who is hired into a position of stature-not because they are qualified or have demonstrated the ability to do this type of work in the past–but because of who they were and who they were connected to. For example, I once worked with a lady that was hired in to our corporation in a pretty high level management position. She did not have the education, the experience, and she wasn’t exactly teachable either–but her father knew the company’s owners and they had a side business deal happening–so as part of that deal–this lady was ‘given’ a sought after position in the company. Of course–it seemed pretty pathetic that after 5 years she still knew nothing about what she was doing–she was not held responsible for anything that others at her level of management was responsible for in their departments. It was so bad infact, that she eventually became “the joke” in that office of over 600 people…and while she was a likable person to some degree–she had no skill sets in this particular industry that would be of any use, and everyone quickly figured this out. I don’t mean this in mean-spiritedness– it was just to have a conversation with her (which I had to have many) was a challenge, the term ‘space-cadet’ seems to be fitting. At some point–someone caught on to this at the very top– and “promoted” her to a less visible position in the company–complete with a raise and her very own office suite. But at least, when they did that–operations in her former department–got back to normal. As always Tim, Great Post!”

    An M.B. of Clearwater, Florida wrote…

    “Thanks Tim. I could really relate to this one. My mother always told me not to learn to type because: ‘You’ll end up bored to death and taking orders from some man who is not half as smart as you are.’ However, when I moved to Florida and could not find a job in my profession, as I’d been warned would happen since Florida ranked dead last in social services, I had to rely on my being able to type 90 wpm, which was enough to get a job back then. I had taught myself to type out of a typing book at night while working in a hospital, since my mom would not let me take typing in school for the reason stated above. She was bitter because that is what happened to her. She graduated first in her college class with three degrees awarded simultaneously, but there was no ‘hire the handicapped’ back then, and nobody wanted a woman in a wheelchair with a shriveled up leg from polio, so she ended up typing with a genius IQ. What a waste. After I moved down here, I ended up having a couple of real doozie bosses that proved my mother right. But, believe it or not, the best boss I ever had down here was one who told me right off at my interview that she had been the best salesperson they had, so they promoted her to sales manager, and she was now a victim of the Peter Principle as a result. She was impressed that I knew what the Peter Principle was, and she needed a super organized, fast working administrative assistant to make up for her lack of paperwork and organizational skills. (That was back when an administrative assistant was still a totally different job than a secretary. In fact, I had two secretaries of my own on that job). I am compulsive about getting work done, which helped make me the right one for the job. Eventually, she trusted me enough to let me write all her letters and even forged her signature on them. I basically did her job while she schmoozed people into buying condos, which is what she was really good at. I don’t understand why, when someone is that good at something and loves their current job, the company doesn’t just ask them if they want to stay where they are, and then give them a raise or bonuses, instead of promoting them beyond their level of competence.”

    A T.D. of La Plata, Maryland wrote…

    “You said: ‘Those who tend to covet titles in such groups normally suffer from low self-esteem as they never accomplished anything of substance in their professional lives and now crave recognition.’ Yes! Indeed, I have sadly observed this way too many times in one particular fraternal organizaion.”

    A J.S. of Skidway Lake, Michigan wrote…

    “You’ve made many good points, Tim. This one ‘This naturally raises the ire of subordinates and others more qualified to perform the work’ hit home with me in the volunteer organization setting. One year no one accepted a nomination for president except me. I knew there were many who could do the job as well as or better than I, but no one was willing. I was, therefore, free to discount suggestions and criticism from them. The group accomplished a lot that year and raised a record amount of money for the schools. When I was approached with suggestions, I would ask the person to look into it further, submit a written report and present the findings at the next meeting. It never happened. An alternate strategy was ‘What a great idea! I want to see your name on next year’s ballot and will vote for you.’ I never heard from those people again, either.”

    An A.B. of Oxford, England, UK wrote…

    “You mean like the Postmasters at the United States Post Office, but not limitted to obviously. LOL. Excellent article.”

    A K.S. of Oklahoma wrote…

    “Very, very well said Tim. One key is being able to recognize incompetence. Often it is the difference between Unconscious Incompetence and Conscious Incompetence. One has to have an awareness.”


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